Atlanta Probe Spurs Debate Over Harm To Suspects' Status

The FBI's high-profile, and apparently fruitless, investigation of the Olympic Centennial Park bombing has added to the casualty list the reputation of Richard Jewell.

Justice Department officials acknowledge that after nearly two months of investigation by hundreds of federal agents, they have no substantive evidence linking the former security guard to the July 27 pipe-bombing in Atlanta.

Mr. Jewell says that's because they are investigating an innocent man. He has asked for an apology and plans to file suit against the government and members of the media who he says ruined his reputation in a crush of speculative news reports following the blast.

Although Jewell remains a suspect and the investigation is far from over, his plight is raising questions about whether government officials have an obligation either to apologize or to take other remedial action when federal agents appear to have fingered the wrong person in a high-profile case.

"The Richard Jewell situation is just a public display of what people have been subjected to all the time," says David Rudolf, a trial lawyer in Chapel Hill, N.C.

For anyone other than a career criminal, public disclosure of an ongoing federal investigation can do immense damage to a reputation, a career, or a business. Because of the cloud that now hangs over him, Jewell says, he will never be able to pursue his dream of becoming a police officer.

A punishing investigation?

In theory, suspects are considered innocent until proven guilty. But in practice, the mere existence of an investigation can be a form of punishment, imprisoning the subject in a kind of legal limbo, lawyers say.

What happens if the allegations turn out to be false, or agents are unable to gather enough evidence to present to a grand jury?

In some cases federal prosecutors notify the suspect's lawyer. But such courtesy is rare, trial lawyers say.

"I am representing someone who has been the subject of an investigation for four years and has that cloud hanging over his head," says Juanita Brooks, a San Diego-based trial lawyer who specializes in white-collar cases.

"He is a very reputable businessman. He has not been able to get on with his life," Ms. Brooks adds.

With a view toward this problem, a committee of lawyers at the American Bar Association in the1980s proposed amending the Justice Department's internal rules.

The lawyers suggested that federal prosecutors be required to notify the target of an investigation whenever the case was closed with a decision not to prosecute.

The provision was rejected by the Justice Department.

The definition of 'clean'

One long-time prosecutor with experience in public-corruption cases, who asked that he not be identified by name, said prosecutors worry about writing such letters because of appearances of giving a suspect a "clean bill of health," when in fact the letter may only acknowledge that an investigation is stalemated.

"There are cases where a guy may be dirty, but you don't think you could win it in court," the prosecutor says. "You don't want to give him a clean bill of health and let the public think he is innocent."

Michael Ross is a lawyer in New York City specializing in white-collar cases and a former federal prosecutor. "There is something to say for the government's position," he says. "Insufficient evidence to indict is not the equivalent of a clean bill of health."

But he adds, "I think that the Richard Jewell case represents a broader lesson that we have to learn, that law enforcement owes an obligation to the people who on occasion are wrongly convicted in the press but who never have a day in court.

"I think someone in the Justice Department has to tell the FBI and the US Attorney that if there is publicity during an investigation which condemns someone and there is not enough evidence to prosecute, the government has to redeem that person's reputation publicly by saying that there simply is not enough evidence to convict this person," Mr. Ross says.

"Law enforcement has an obligation to issue a press release with the same drama that it issued the press release about the ongoing investigation," he says. "There should be balance between publicity and fairness."

Adds Mr. Rudolf, "If you conduct a discretionary investigation, and it doesn't go anywhere, even if you don't owe somebody an apology you at least owe them a letter that we have ceased investigating you and have decided not to seek criminal charges."

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